“Oh, really?” I said. “Me, too!”
And then, because I’m from here… and he’s from here… I asked the question: “Where’d you go to high school?”
To people who aren’t from here, that question sounds weird, like I’m asking for the security question so they can access their bank account. But to my stylist, it wasn’t strange at all.
“I went to Clark,” he said without missing a beat, “but it wasn’t like that.”
Since that interaction, I’ve asked multiple San Antonians to answer the question, and then elaborate on how they feel about their answer. Some feel the need to qualify it with “it wasn’t like that,” meaning that they don’t fit the stereotype of their high school. In the case of my hair stylist, he didn’t grow up well-to-do like many of his classmates at Clark. Some felt the need to expand on their answer and explain while others let their responses speak for themselves. Almost everyone embraced their alma mater, but many were careful to say it didn’t define them.
But why do we ask about a person’s high school in the first place?
It’s worth noting that the only other place where I’ve heard the question “Where did you go to high school?” between strangers from the same city is St. Louis, Missouri, one of the most racially segregated cities in America. Of course, San Antonio has its own unwanted designation – we continually rank among the most economically segregated cities in the country.
Is the question itself is a function of segregation?
No, the question isn’t the problem in my view. If your intention is to learn something about someone, “where’d you go to high school” is a great question to ask. But in a city like San Antonio, the answers can reveal more than you think. And that is a problem.
Sometimes we ask about alma maters to find out if we share any acquaintances or experiences.
“It’s a point of reference,” said Debra Guerrero, 52, who graduated from Incarnate Word High School. She’s quick to point out, however, that she should have gone to Highlands High School, which she represents on the San Antonio ISD school board. “My parents sacrificed a ton to send me [to Incarnate Word].”
On a series of recent out-of-town work trips, Guerrero said, the question came up no less than four times when she ran into people from San Antonio. Each time, she said, she felt the need to explain herself. She didn’t come from a ton of money, and she’s a Southsider at heart. At the same time, the question itself created a connection between San Antonians abroad.
In addition to serving as an icebreaker, the question is also part of the provincialism that we San Antonians pride ourselves on – ours is the big small town. That folksy alma-mater pride binds us together.
But we’re too grown up to be cute, y’all.
Take, for instance, my hair stylist who went to Clark.
Clark now is different from Clark in the 1990s when we were in high school. Northside ISD parents and administrators are quick to point out the school that serves Shavano Park also serves several aging, lower-income neighborhoods. The same can be said of Churchill, Marshall, Holmes and Lee high schools.
However, so nuanced is our high school diagnostic tool that we can cross reference it with the person’s age to figure out if they are a 1960 Lee alum or a 2018 LEE (Legacy of Educational Excellence, the new name for the former Robert E. Lee High School) alum. You know, like wine – vintage matters.
T.J. Mayes, 32, is County Judge Nelson Wolff’s chief of staff. When he’s asked about his high school, he answers carefully.
“I went to Churchill,” he said, “but I sometimes follow up with, ‘I was going to go to Lee until they redrew the lines when I was in middle school.’”
He’s letting people know where he fits in one of San Antonio’s changing neighborhoods.
Seventeen years after she graduated from Alamo Heights High School, people are still asking Jill Marsh, who now lives in Waco, where she went to high school. “Sometimes I say, ‘Near Trinity’ instead of Alamo Heights, just because I don’t want the immediate judgment,” she said.
Alumni of schools like Lanier, South San, Memorial and Kennedy – which serve almost entirely low-income student – face a different kind of bias, say alumni such as Councilman Rey Saldaña. At age 32, the South San grad believes it took a Stanford University education to get people outside his own neighborhood to take him seriously as a civic leader. He may be right.
There are also a lot of high schools that don’t have name brand recognition.
Quincy Boyd, CEO of Families Empowered San Antonio, recalls going to University of Texas at Austin after graduating from Judson High School. She met a lot of other San Antonians at school, and they immediately asked, “Where’d you go to high school?”
“The picture was already painted, and the paint was already dry,” Boyd said.
In other words, the question is sometimes too useful, telling the questioner too much information, right or wrong. Both Debra Guerrero and T.J. Mayes pointed out that while one’s alma mater can tell you a lot, the way a person answers the question tells you even more than the answer itself. Are they fighting their high school’s reputation, or accepting it? Do they identify with their high-school classmates, or do they feel alienated from that culture?
Of course, perception leads to certain real advantages, said Steven Hussain, 28. He graduated from an alternative school after dropping out of high school, making him a sort of insider-outsider on the whole high school discussion. Alumni networks and college recruiters can create real advantages at schools perceived to turn out smarter kids who work hard, regardless of the reality. Having made his way without those advantages, Hussain knows how hard it is, and is trying to create opportunities for young people. Currently, he’s doing so as the chief mission officer of Goodwill San Antonio.
Superintendents like San Antonio ISD’s Pedro Martinez are trying to build relationships with more universities so students can have that advantage, but he’s about three generations behind North East ISD and Alamo Heights ISD where students are following their parents and grandparents to “the best schools.”
Employers also ask the question during job interviews, Tobi Muniz, 28, says. She’s a full-time student now, but reflected on the decade between high school and her enrollment in college.
She remembered employers’ faces when she said, “East Central.” While she doesn’t think it has necessarily cost her a job, it can kill the conversation. She suspects she would have had a better chance of connecting with employers if she’d been able to offer up a school with a more prominent reputation.
Where wealth and connections may be lacking at home, some high schools make up for it in political weight. Schools like Jefferson and Young Women’s Leadership Academy are in areas that are lower-income, perhaps, but those nieghborhoods are politically super-enfranchised, represented by people like Ed Garza, a Jefferson alum, former mayor and current SAISD school board member who has made Jefferson community booster meetings a weigh station for every political aspirant on the West Side.
Leaders like Martinez and Garza are working against the profound reality of segregation. Where you went to high school becomes yet another advantage, or disadvantage, kids carry with them through life.
It says nothing about students’ personal strengths, weaknesses or character – because, yes, we know there are athletic, artistic, punk-ish, shy, spirited, lazy, overachieving kids in every school. It says a lot, however, about your parents’ networks and net worth. And yours, too, unless you are an either heroic or tragic outlier.
While a lot of people are clinging to the ideal that character and hard work matter more than your family’s wealth or lack of it, many economists disagree.
In a Harvard University study, researchers concluded that the bootstrap version of the American dream is far more rare than we think, and, in some parts of the country, it’s damn near impossible.
“The U.S. is better described as a collection of societies, some of which are ‘lands of opportunity’ with high rates of mobility across generations, and others in which few children escape poverty,” the report states.
One of the factors that inhibits mobility? Segregation. One of the most economically segregated cities in the U.S.? San Antonio.
Inherited advantage and disadvantage are why you’re tempted to congratulate the South San alum whose kids now go to Brandeis High School. Or why you’ve probably never met an Alamo Heights alum whose kids go to Lanier (though if they exist, I’d love to hear their stories). I’m not trying to knock these schools. They are all doing their best to educate kids who have been economically sorted by housing, culture and sprawl.
Schools are stuck with the bill for a problem we’re all part of. “We,” as in, all of us who pay taxes in a city that is still segregated by income. We pay to pave the roads that allow for sprawl.
We breathe this inequity, San Antonio, and we don’t even know it. But that also means we can fix it. We can vote, participate and share. We can spend more tax dollars in parts of town that have been neglected.
The cracks are starting to show in the desegregating power of school choice, at least in cases where it’s not properly managed. The student flocking to many magnet programs, for example, are typically far more affluent than the city as a whole, and certain charter networks have become havens for families who would otherwise have enrolled in private school.
Keep in mind, these are public schools. Private school options have long been indicators of social status and values. But public schools, at least the way we do them in the United States, are supposed to be status-neutral. This isn’t really true anywhere in the country because exclusive neighborhoods and neglected neighborhoods exist in every city. But in San Antonio we’ve baked it into our identities so that when educators try to fix it, they (and the journalists who write about them) get nasty letters from alumni, torrents of pissed parents and people throwing off their thin veil of good manners to defend their privilege.
Because at the end of the day, to many San Antonians, there is a right answer to the question, “Where’d you go to high school?”
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